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The Carchive: The ’79 Chevrolet Caprice and Impala

Chris Haining October 20, 2017 Cars You Should Know, The Carchive 12 Comments

It’s been several weeks since we last last dipped our bucket into the fetid swamp of motoring past, and trawled up the early ’80s Nissan Patrol. We’re creeping backwards just a couple of years this time, but skipping continents to land stateside again. Welcome back to The Carchive.

North America has produced many iconic cars over the years, some of which are are almost stereotypically obvious. Growing up in the ’80s over 3,000 miles from the Eastern US seaboard, though, I was more frequently exposed to one unmistakable shape than anything else – the 1977-1990 Chevy Caprice.

“Beautiful, thoroughly contemporary, the new generation car that has become the most popular of our times.”

Indeed, the ’77 Impala had scored 657,151 sales, which was quite a few and an early sign of its continued popularity. It was a common sight in England, but only when we switched the telly on or watched a film. I mostly saw yellow ones and black and white ones with NYPD written the sides, or occasionally dark blue or maroon ones with blackwall tyres and a magnetically mounted red light on the roof.

And then a strange thing happened. I went to the US for the first time in 1993, and I saw actual, normal people travelling in these things.

“How, one asks, could something so contemporary be so committed to the ageless traditions of comfort, value and beauty?”

As the brochure says, “The Caprice is, as it has been for the past 13 years, the uppermost Chevrolet” and, I have to say, it really was a remarkably elegant machine. Despite being several yards shorter than the previous generation dinosaur it replaced for ’77, the third-generation Caprice was still a fairly gargantuan 5.3 metres from end to end, and that partially explains how it looked so balanced and elegant. Yes, I really mean that.

It wasn’t until this brochure arrived in my collection, though, that I realized that those New York cabbies and cops only got to sample a tiny portion of the Caprice range. I was blown away when I found a Landau coupe listed, and one with a wrap-around glass rear windshield and what appears to be a BMW-style Hofmeister Kink in the rearmost side window. And one with an all-but identical six-passenger interior to the regular sedan.

“In sum, a beautifully designed car that has the good of the family at heart”

The other thing I hadn’t picked up on, and this is probably entirely unforgivable, was that Impala was actually beneath Caprice in the pecking order. I had always thought the reverse was true. I actually thought this right through the ’90s, beyond the time of the Impala SS. That being the high-performance variant of the fourth-gen Caprice, Impala was, in that case, the flagship version. Turns out that was the reverse of regular precedent.

Years later, looking at this brochure it becomes obvious that the Impala was the pauper version all along. Look at that station wagon and how miserable it looks without the woodgrain applique. Imagine ordering an Impala coupe and having to look at that glitz-free nose treatment every time you open the garage.

Still. at least you could still order whorehouse red Carmine plush cloth furniture, with co-ordinating carpets, dashboard, panelling and headlining.

In fact, no matter how much exposure the world outside North America had to the Caprice via the small screen, no matter how familiar that perpendicular, three-box shape may have become, the idea of an entirely red interior was something many of us never got truly comfortable with – and which seems to have fallen totally out of vogue in its home country, too.

Make carmine velour great again.

(All images are of original manufacturer publicity material, photographed by me. Impala SS. I just thought I’d mention it again)

  • Citric

    For some reason entirely red interiors were the business in the mid 80s, my old Civic had one, and my dad had a Ford F-150 and an Olds 98 with one. There were several fox body Mustangs that were all red inside at my high school too.

    Actually miss them, black is so plain.

    • Alff

      Yep. Had a 1980 Rabbit and an ’82 Mustang, both with red interiors.

    • fede

      Your comment made me remember the series of posts “Test Drive ANNLimited”, and the BMW Z4 M coupe, which had a red interior… I wonder what are the car and the owner are up to these days.

  • Alff

    I have fond memories of Mom’s triple black ’77…my Dad remembers it as a deplorable POS. He’s always had better taste than me.

  • I always liked the coupe with that 3 piece rear glass. I also thought that using the coupe’s long doors and quarter windows on the wagon would make a nice custom.

    • dukeisduke

      The glass is actually one piece. A wire was embedded in each side during manufacture, which was heated, softening the glass and allowing it to be bent.

  • Bob Smith

    My daddy always told me that the cops and the cabbies usually drive the most comfortable and well made cars in the affordable range. In the 80’s these cars were all they used

  • wunno sev

    ah, childhood! the police had started using the round ’91-96 Caprices by the time i was aware of my surroundings, but i remember seeing some of these boxes with the blue-and-whites up top and as taxis. still, it’ll always be the last-gen B-Body that is The Police Car for me. somehow, in my mind, they’re even policier than the Crown Vic.
    http://www.usfirepolice.net/il_illinois/il_chicago_police_retired_patrol_8761-1.jpg

  • Alan Allawi

    2 years ago I bought All original 1977 Pontiac Bonneville Landau Coupe non brougham model brown exterior with cream landau top with beige cloth interior original 8K miles car was in storage over 30 years 350 4B tilt steering , power windows , factory AM/FM radio , factory AC with all books and original owners manual. Beautiful GM B body car.

  • Pete

    Owned a few of them, and laugh all you want, but these are easily mu favorite cars ever. I honestly would take this over any other car as my daily driver.

  • dukeisduke

    One of the things I remember most about the ’79 models was that they were offered in two shades of Puke Green (actually Light Green and Medium Green), also available on the Malibu and Monte Carlo. They were even available together, as a two-tone selection.

    I’ve always liked the looks of these, but yeah, they’re garbage. The automatic was usually the hated (certainly by me) THM200. Originally designed for the Chevette, it found its way into larger cars, usually with disastrous results. My mom’s ’78 Malibu Classic was never reliable until the THM200 was swapped for a rebuilt THM350, which required a different driveshaft, moving the crossmember and changing the mount, changing the throttle lever on the carb, and and adding the cable-operated kickdown. The swap happened before the car hit 30,000 miles.

  • Rover 1

    Just as Americans are getting used to there being another Chevrolet called Caprice, they’re going out of production. The Holden WM model Caprice, aka Chevrolet Caprice, aka (in China) Buick Park Avenue, aka (Korea) Daewoo Veritas, aka Chevrolet PPV(Police Pursuit Vehicle), aka HSV Grange, aka (Germany) Bitter Vero, is no longer made.
    The last Caprice a ‘Swichblade Silver’ V8 automatic was made in Melbourne on Oct 20 2017
    https://gaycarboys.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/holden-caprice-7.jpg

    ’07-’12 WM Buick Park Avenue (LHD, who’s going to be the first to import one of these from China and confuse their local Buick dealer
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/23/Buick_Park_Avenue_01_China_2012-05-01.JPG/1280px-Buick_Park_Avenue_01_China_2012-05-01.JPG

    ’08-’10 Daewoo Veritas
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a8/20110727_daewoo_veritas_1.jpg/1280px-20110727_daewoo_veritas_1.jpg

    ’08-’17 HSV Grange, the sporty limo
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7f/2008_HSV_Grange_%28E_Series_MY09%29_sedan_%282010-07-22%29.jpg/1280px-2008_HSV_Grange_%28E_Series_MY09%29_sedan_%282010-07-22%29.jpg

    ’09-’12 Bitter Vero the rarest version, very few made, at €121,975, hardly surprising.
    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/18/Bitter_Vero_Dra.jpg